Archive for April, 2012
By Patrick Kennedy
When you first start learning a language, everything is challenging, and both the Lao and Thai languages are considered hard languages to learn in particular, since the alphabets for each look very exotic to westerners, and since they are both tonal languages. First of all, both languages are interrelated – there is a significant overlap between the two languages in terms of the same or similar alphabetic symbols, as well as many common words between the two languages. From my experiences of studying Lao and Thai, I wanted to offer my observations and suggestions on how to study them.
Firstly, for the absolute beginner, I recommend “Easy Thai” by Gordon H. Allison and “Lao Basics” by Sam Brier. You can find both books at Amazon.com – as well as at many bookstores. Secondly, if you want to learn Thai quickly, I think you should consider a quick crash course in Laotian first. There are several reasons for this approach. First, Lao is definitely easier to learn than Thai. As the author of Easy Thai says of the Lao language:
Although the Lao language is itself considered as a separate language and not a dialect of Thai — it is true — you will find that practically speaking it is an older, more-orthographically-simple form of Thai that is relatively easy to learn for anyone….
Thus, learning Lao will make it easier to learn Thai – and, indeed, most Lao people learn Thai as they grow up, as Thai pop culture and commercial products provide both exposure to the Thai language and a general necessity to learn Thai. I recommend learning Lao first, as a crash course, even if your interests are really to learn Thai. And here are more reasons why -
1. As noted, Lao is much simpler.
2. Thai is much more complex!
3. If you know a little Lao, you will be able to speak with the Thai taxi driver better, because he probably speaks “pasa Isan” (“pasa” means language, and Isan is the Northeast region of Thailand, which was formerly a part of Laos.
4. One third of the population of Thailand speaks “pasa Isan”, which is basically “pasa Lao”!
5. You won’t be seen as a snobby foreigner learning Thai — the Thai Isan and Lao people will really appreciate it!
6. Again, the two language are largely interrelated, but Lao will help simplify your future Thai studies.
7. Both books are very slim – about a 100 pages each – so, studying Lao can be a real crash course!
8. The author of the Thai Easy book encourages the student to learn the alphabet as quickly as possible – it’s harder if you go too slow! Thus, if you want to learn Thai, learn Lao rapidly, then move on to the Thai book.
9. The Lao Basics book has an audio CD to help learn the alphabet and basic vocabulary, whereas there is no audio CD for the Easy Thai book.
Finally, as Sam Brier in the Lao Basics book says:
Thank you Gordon Allison, the author of Easy Thai — the book that Lao Basics is modeled after. I found Easy Thai in a Bangkok bookstore and quickly saw that it simplified what seemed to me a very complex language. After using it to grasp the basics of Thai in a rather short period of time, I thought to myself, ‘If there were only a book like this for learning Lao.’ Unable to find one, I decided to write it myself.
Indeed, Sam Brier was right, and to a larger degree, his book is a clearer distillation of Gordon Allison’s approach for the Lao language, and if you study Sam’s book rapidly, you will have the basic keys to learning Thai, as well as having the rudimentary skills of speaking “pasa Isan” with a third of the population of Thailand (20 million people!), along with speaking Lao with about 6.5 million Lao people in Laos! Having established our learning approach, let’s move on!
Now the fun part, study the Lao Basics book for about a month, then move on to the Easy Thai book. If your goal is just to learn Lao, then obviously study the Lao Basics book for several months. But even if your primary goal is to study Lao, keep on going and eventually study the Thai language. The Isan people in Thailand are Thais (and also speak Thai), and you should say certain Thai expressions, such as “thank you” in Thai as you speak “pasa Isan”. Moreover, you will have a much fuller regional background if you study Thai. So, it just makes sense to learn both languages, as they will strengthen your linguistic skills in Thai and Lao, along with the shared cultural knowledge you will gain in the Southeast Asian area as you study these interrelated languages.
When it is time to start studying the Easy Thai book, you will be happy you started with the Lao book first. The reason why is that Lao has 26 consonants and 28 vowels, whereas Thai has 44 consonants and 32 basic vowels! Moreover, the Thai characters tend to be more ornate, and many are used frequently, while other Thai characters are used less frequently. It will greatly aid your studies of these two S/E Asian languages by learning Lao first (or eventually), which will provide essential shortcuts into the inter-workings of these two interrelated languages. Also, as noted, the Lao Basics book does an even better job of presenting the Lao language, has an audio CD, and will give you the essential shortcuts to really understand the Thai Easy book, which is a little older in it’s English expressions and typefaces and lacks an audio CD.
Even if you have already been studying Thai for a while, I think you will benefit greatly from studying some Lao language for many of the reasons already stated. As for myself, I have studied Lao for well over a year and a half now, and I am just beginning into my Thai studies. After buying several books on Thai and feeling completely lost and confused, I decided to purchase the book mentioned by Sam Brier in Lao Basics, because it must have been a very seminal work for Thai language studies. Indeed, Easy Thai is such a great book for the very complicated Thai language. And if you acquire both books, I think you will have a solid basis to learn both of these fascinating and interrelated Southeast Asian languages.
Sook dii (good luck) and enjoy your studies!
(Pardon any mistakes and typos – I prepared this text rapidly, and I’m not using any good speller-checker software in its creation. Feel free to send any comments, and I will update the text accordingly.)